It’s four years since we moved to live in Orkney.
When I first left home, aged 18 in 1969, I went to college for four years and they were four of the best and most memorable years of my life, so a span of four years is one of the units I use to measure time. From 1969 to 1973 I suppose I did a lot of maturing (although it may not have looked much like it back then) and, because it was such a formative period, it always seems much bigger looking back. Wow! Have I really lived in Orkney that long?
The last four years have not been formative as the college years were, there has been reflection on all that went before, appreciation of all I have now, satisfaction at having achieved the shift and relief that I have lived long enough to enjoy it. Before we lived here my heart would break every time I left, Scotland. I know that sounds like a daft exaggeration, over dramatic maybe, but that’s what happened, there is no better way to describe the feeling. I would spend the last day soaking up as much as I could – refusing to do any packing until the day of departure. On the road south I always made sure to stop at motorway services north of the border to have one final hit of Scottish, scenic postcards; one last fix of highland coos and remote, red telephone boxes; and sheep blocking narrow roads.
I missed a lot of stuff in those days. I used, always, to read the Orcadian but it was full of reports on things that happened before I arrived and notices of events planned for after I was due to leave: traditional music concerts; opening of Ness of Brodgar; football matches; exhibitions of paintings. I love it now when some announcement appears in the paper, no matter how far into the future it is to be. Straight away I mark the date on the Jane Glue calendar that hangs in the kitchen.
Visitors to Kirkwall this summer will notice scaffolding on a small part of St Magnus Cathedral, around the front door (you needn’t worry, you can still see the magnificent façade, and get inside through the side door). I know these works are essential, and they always seem to drag on for ever, but I’m not concerned. Whenever it is that renovators allow us through the front again I’ll be here to enjoy it.
Orkney weather has a bit of a reputation. I think it’s largely undeserved but let’s just call it ‘changeable’. Visitors usually get to see the islands in their beautiful blues and greens, even if only for a short time. Half an hour can be enough to sear a lifelong memory into one’s mind. It doesn’t spoil anything for me because if it’s bad I know I’ll be here when it turns out nice again. I get everything that’s on offer; every spell of sunshine, every winter sunrise and every, glorious sunset in June. I even enjoy a good blow, which is a good thing because I get all of them too. The snow represents a change of clothing for the land, lovely in its own way and doesn’t hang around too long.
The longest wait has been lockdown. Seventeen months since the day Bev and I were on the ferry, heading for Scrabster and her family party in the south, when the prime minister came on the television to say “Stay at home.” We drove off the boat, round the carpark in Scrabster and joined the queue for the return sailing to Stromness. Since then we have been waiting – hoping – for life as we know it to start up again. I’m writing this in the middle of August and restaurants are open; cruise ships are back; Bev’s playing her fiddle in company again; they’ve just finished digging at Ness of Brodgar and I got my ticket for the Parish Cup Final. I heard tonight they’re hoping the Winter Choir will go ahead, to once again fill the high, vaulted space in St Magnus Cathedral. I’ll be there; and I’ll be here, too, when the red snowflake is mounted by council workers on our lamppost at Christmas.
One day, at harvest time, I met a couple of regulars from our pre-covid, Thursday coffee mornings in the kirk. I can’t think it will be long before we are, once again, dropping in for the best home bakes ever. I hope they’ll greet me as someone from the past, a survivor. I hope friendships will be made stronger by us having come through adversity together. I hope it will be as if the old folk remember me from a time before – from the old days, before the virus.
Richard writes regularly for Scottish Islands Explorer. His first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. 'Orkney – A Special Place' appeared in 2017, with 'Orkney - A Special Way of Life' arriving in 2021. The books are published by Luath Press, Edinburgh.